Nature-friendly farmers in Northern Ireland become ambassadors for working in a more sustainable way

Northern Ireland

Six new Farming for Nature Ambassadors were celebrated for taking a whole-farm approach to working with nature at an event in Cookstown, Northern Ireland. They spoke about why working with biodiversity and profitability can go hand in hand in agriculture.

Six farmers in Northern Ireland have been celebrated for taking a whole-farm approach towards working with nature for a more sustainable future at an awards ceremony on Thursday 30 November.

Six new ambassadorships have been created in Northern Ireland to complement the 81 nature-friendly farmers who have received the accolade in the Republic of Ireland.

At the event this week, the farmers took part in a panel discussion. They have also been speaking about how nature protection and food production are not mutually exclusive and that it's possible to farm in a nature-friendly way while maintaining a viable, profitable business. 

They suggested traditional farming styles focused on high inputs and high yields are not always delivering financial returns and adopting a more nature-friendly approach can help balance the books by lowering the use of costly items such as bought-in feed, fuel or fertiliser.

The six Farming for Nature Ambassadors for Northern Ireland are: 

  • Ruth and Scott Walker, from Tannybrake Farm in Ballymena in Co. Antrim,

  • David McBride from Glenwherry in Co. Antrim,

  • Edward Ellison from Templepatrick in Co. Antrim,

  • Dale Orr from Churchtown Farm near Strangford in Co. Down,

  • Jonny Blair from Limavady in Co. Derry,

  • Clare and Gabriel Kelly from Trillick in Co. Tyrone.

Clare and Gabriel started out by setting aside rushy areas on their farm that were too wet and boggy for their cattle and then planted trees and hedgerows, creating space for nature and shelter belts for their livestock. They now create bedding from their rushes rather than buying in straw and are seeking to reuse and recycle wherever they can.

Clare said: “People think you can either have great cattle or farm sustainably, but we have both. We are making a contribution to the environment but we are also running a successful business. We believe being economically and environmentally sustainable goes hand in hand. It’s far cheaper and more profitable to work with nature than against it.”

Jonny, who farms on 300 acres and has a beef suckler herd, said he became interested in regenerative agriculture after increasingly feeling that a model of high inputs and high outputs wasn’t bringing in a satisfactory financial return.

He started working on soil health and boosting insect populations and this led to further biodiversity increases, bringing benefits such as natural pest control. He has also reduced his stocking density slightly. All these changes have resulted in a more financially secure operation on the farm which Jonny hopes will help cope with a more uncertain future with climate change and more erratic weather patterns.

Jonny said: “We were in the red this time last year and now we’re in the black. We are low input precisely because we’ve been able to claw back a bit of money this way. I’m hopeful going forward that this is a more risk-averse business model and the finances will be a lot easier to stack up because it’s about taking as many costs out of the system as I can.”

Other work being done by the ambassadors includes a peatland restoration project in partnership with the RSPB and growing multi-species swards with deep-rooted grasses which continue to thrive during drought periods and also have medicinal properties for grazing sheep.

The project was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs as part of the Shared Island Civic Society Fund, with support from the Burrenbeo Trust and The Farming For Nature Project.

More than 200 qualified professionals working in farmland diversity across the island of Ireland nominated farmers who they feel should be recognised for how they support nature in their agricultural work and their local community. The ambassador awards recognise farmers who have made significant contributions to protecting or enhancing nature on their farms, farm in a manner which is agriculturally, socially and economically progressive and share their passion for nature-friendly farming with other people.